Monday 12 October 2009

The Winterslow Lioness


We have received a couple of enquiries, from different quarters, but both in the past week, about the little booklet we published concerning The Winterslow Lioness. It has been out of print for several years now and we have been asked whether we have any plans to re-publish it. The bad news is that the answer is no, not in the near future; but the good news is that we are happy to make it available it on line as part of our Bedeguar Books blog. For Tom Harley and Muriel Goss, and anyone else who has been wanting to read the text of the booklet, here it is:

'The Quicksilver' was the best of four mail-coaches running between Exeter and London (and vice-versa) during the early part of the 19th century. On the evening of Sunday 20th October 1816, the coach left Salisbury for London. On nearing the inn known as the Hut (now the Pheasant Inn) at Winterslow, about seven miles north-east of the Wiltshire cathedral city, what was thought to be a large calf was seen trotting beside the horses. The steeds became nervous, and had due reason to be, for the 'calf' was in fact a lioness which had escaped from a travelling menagerie parked at the roadside. This menagerie was shortly due to appear at Salisbury Fair.

The team of horses began to kick and lash out, causing the coach to sway and panicking the passengers. The lioness began leaping at the off-leader, a fine horse called Pomegranate, badly mauling him. He was, of course, fixed in the traces and could do nothing to escape the fangs and claws of his assailant. He was a former racehorse, dubbed a thief on the course but had developed such a bad temper in the stable that he had been sold to a coach proprietor, hence his second career as part of the team pulling the Exeter Mail. The guard, Joseph Pike, reached for his blunderbuss and was about to fire when the menagerie owner shouted not to shoot and the dog seized the lioness by the leg, which diverted her attention and prevented further injury to the horses. In the ensuing struggle the lioness killed the dog before running under a nearby granary; a building propped up off the ground by a set of staddlestones as a precaution against rats and vermin.

The coach-driver and the guard remained transfixed on top of the coach, fearing for their lives; while the passengers, screaming at the top of their voices, fled for safety to the inn, bolting the door behind them. An ostler employed at the inn, settled the horses, while the menagerie keepers searched in the darkness under the granary with the aid of lighted candles. The lioness, believed to be five years of age, was normally quite tame, and hearing familiar voices, allowed her keepers to catch her in a sack and carry her back to one of the cages.

The coach later continued on its way; the injured Pomegranate having been replaced by another horse. When the entourage arrived at Andover, two of the passengers were quick to notify the Magistrates at Salisbury of the incident and how the menagerie owner intended to show the lioness at the city's fair the next day. The owner was consequently summoned before the Bench and ordered to keep the dangerous animal in his charge under strict control. The owner of the menagerie was particularly enterprising because following the incident at Winterslow, he promptly purchased the wounded horse and exhibited him alongside the lioness at Salisbury Fair. This was a successful move on his part and hundreds of fair-goers paid to gaze on in horror at the horse's injuries. Pomegranate was later returned to his former owner, Mr Weeks of the Red Lion Inn, Salisbury, who eventually received compensation for the injuries his valuable horse had suffered.

The story soon attracted national attention. Not only was it reported in newspapers; the attack was illustrated by two artists; James Pollard and A. Sauerweid. The illustration by Sauerweid, although awe-inspiring, is purely theatrical. Much rarer than Pollard's, it shows the lioness attacking the leading horse with a great deal of ferocity. The passengers fly from the coach with streaming cloaks, while men with torches come to the rescue. The Newfoundland dog is, for some reason, portrayed as a mastiff. The inn is only shown as a shadowy building in a corner of the picture, with a garland hanging from a pole sufficing as a sign.

Pollard's print, which is the more accurate of the two, was dedicated to Thomas Hasker, the Superintendent of His Majesty's Mail-Coaches. Pollard, apparently, did his illustration under the direction of the mail coach guard and the landlord of the Hut. It shows the coach drawing up in front of the inn, with the lioness plunging at the throat of the leading horse, while the guard on the back of the coach is seen taking hold of a blunderbuss. A small group of gentlemen, wearing top hats, look out from an upstairs window of the inn. They are supposedly the politician Charles James Fox (1749-1806) of Farley; and the essayists Charles Lamb (1775-1834) and William Hazlitt (1778-1830).

Lamb and Hazlitt were friends and the latter once lived at the Hut. Hazlitt married Sarah Stoddart (daughter of a retired naval officer and sister of Dr Stoddart who later became Editor of The Times) in 1808. She owned a small cottage at Winterslow, where they settled and brought up their children. Following the winter of 1819, Hazlitt chose to live apart from his wife but because he could not forsake his beloved Winterslow, he took up residence at the inn. Pollard's addition of the three celebrities to his picture, was of course, artistic licence; especially when you consider that Fox died ten years before the incident concerning the lioness took place.

The story of the lioness at Winterslow was depicted in recent years when it appeared on one of five 16p stamps issued by the Post Office on 31st July 1984, commemorating the bi-centenary of the introduction of the mail-coach."